British exceptionalism and the legacy of Empire

Published by The i paper (8th June, 2020)

Among the strangest aspects of Britain’s pandemic response has been constant parroting of claims by stumbling politicians and their scientific advisers that this country reacted in “world-beating” style. They have boasted of global leadership from initial planning through to the track-and-trace system, oblivious to how the rest of the world views us with pity since only our hideous death rate is deserving of international attention.

Once again, we see a nation that is still infected – certainly among our leaders – by a strain of hollow exceptionalism. The belief Britain is always best, regardless of facts, is a legacy of our history. It is only a century since this island nation ruled over almost one in four people on the planet. Even as these subjects started demanding their freedoms, we enlisted many of them to help win two world wars. After the second of these great struggles, a remarkable and noble victory over fascism, we shed that enormous empire.

Since then, the country has changed dramatically, reinvigorated by millions who moved from former colonies to build new lives. Now the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests provides sharp reminder of the need to confront the truth about our imperial past.

We can take patriotic pride in many achievements. But when it comes to empire, the national psyche remains scarred by British exceptionalism. There is a strange belief we were better than other European imperialists, since we eventually stopped slave trading and did not use severed hands as a form of currency like Belgians in the Congo, as if this excuses our own cruelties. This warped notion of greatness fed into the Brexit debate. Yet if we fail to fully understand our past, we will struggle to shape a narrative that embraces all citizens as we look for a new path in a fast-changing world.

When my generation was in school half a century ago, we were taught a history of heroic Britons painting the planet a glorious pink. Men such as Clive of India, Kitchener of Khartoum and Cecil Rhodes, who wanted to draw a “ribbon of red” across “the dark continent” of Africa. Never mind that Clive divided local elites and then looted India, helping himself to stolen treasures and setting a template for British imperialism, while Rhodes was a racist who sought to subjugate people from Cape Town to Cairo. In more recent decades, the empire has been shunted aside in classrooms rather than examined with greater honesty, so this influential slice of our past is a foreign place for many pupils.

Britain’s empire was based on assumed racial superiority, built on brutality and theft, and boosted national wealth dramatically while devastating local cultures. Experts can still trace the impact today in conflict, poverty patterns and social trust. Yet how easily we ignore concentration camps, famines, massacres, pillage and torture while focusing on how our predecessors built railways and ended slavery. Abolition of slavery, however, only came after Britons traded human beings for almost three centuries – and when it was ditched, the equivalent of £13bn in today’s money was given to indemnify 3,000 slave-owning families. Nothing went to victims or their families.

Yet our honours system hangs on to this soiled imperial past. The Queen is still head of her beloved commonwealth. Polls find a majority of Britons believe we should take pride in our empire. And top politicians from Gordon Brown through to David Cameron and Jacob Rees-Mogg insist we stop apologising for our imperial past and “celebrate” its achievements. Typically Boris Johnson went even further, giving a glimpse into the archaic mindset of the man shaping post-Brexit Britain, by arguing Africa “is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

Thankfully the sun set on our empire and now the statues are being torn down. Yet its shadow still blurs our vision, fuelling delusions of grandeur and fantasies of exceptionalism. The former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was right to argue that schoolchildren should be taught the truth about British colonialism and migration since they have played such a key role in shaping the nation. As the Runnymede Trust think-tank said last year, the Windrush scandal laid bare the “shocking lack of understanding” even in the higher echelons of government about the winding up of our empire.

It is challenging to believe we can find a shared view of empire amid raging cultural warfare. Yet we need to do so fast. More than one in four pupils in state schools are black or from ethnic minorities; we owe it not just to them but all their classmates to explain the evolution of their nation. If we want to teach them about Britain’s pivotal role in ending the slave trade, they must also understand our earlier perpetuation of horror for so long, especially since it enriched so many domestic cities and family dynasties as well as brutalising communities in Africa and the Caribbean. Yet the myopia goes far beyond the classroom.

The belief that Britain was a unique force for civilisation, brushing aside the darker side of our history, leads not just to ignorance about the great cultures of Asia and Africa but also to a corrosive sense of national superiority. This leads in milder form to those bogus claims of exceptionalism at Downing Street briefings. But it also helps spark bungled foreign adventurism, flawed migration rules, foolish neocolonial aid policies and, yes, Brexit. And it contributes to the egregious failure to tackle institutional racism in our society. We need to understand the past, for better and worse, to see the present clearly and move confidently into the future. Instead the flag has fallen but the blinkers remain.

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